Tarantulas come out in September, crossing roads, looking for mates, but don't worry, they are not dangerous.
When the fall air turns cool and rains moisten range land in the high plains, male tarantulas start to move in southwestern Kansas. There is a highway near Medicine Lodge where the arachnids are said to be so thick sometimes, that bodies are heard crunching under tires in September. There aren't as many tarantulas living in Pratt County, but according to Daren Riedle, Wildlife Diversity Coordinator at Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism near Pratt, they are there.
"It's usually the males you see crossing highways, on the move to find a mate," said Daren Riedle, Wildlife Diversity Coordinator at Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism near Pratt. "The females pretty much stay put, but this time of September is when you might see them."
Tarantulas on display at Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson on September 14 were of the Texas-brown and greenbottle blue varieties and experts there said the most common in southwest Kansas was the Texas-brown tarantula.
"What we mostly have here is wolf spiders," Riedle said. "They look similar in that they are both brown and hairy, but if you ever see a tarantula you will know the difference. The sheer size of a tarantula is hard to forget."
Kim Smith, a Pratt resident who used to live in Medicine Lodge, said she remembers tarantulas often coming out of hiding at the gas station where she worked.
"Every now and then they would be crawling around the gas pumps and customers would get freaked out," she said. "But they really are harmless."
Dustin Wilgers, Assistant Professor of Biology at McPherson College and known to some as 'the spider man,' said tarantulas play and important part in keeping bug and pest populations down in Kansas.
"They are around because they are survivalists," he said. "They eat a lot of insects, like grasshoppers, moths, caterpillars, flies, mosquitoes. Studies show that spiders eat 50 percent more biomass of insects than all of humanity put together."
Tarantulas and wolf spiders dig holes in lawns or preferably rangeland areas where they won't be disturbed much. Bugs fall into their burrows and get stuck in the webs they have underground. They have fangs with venom in them, and if a human were to get bit by one, it would hurt. It would not, however, be venomous enough to cause any damage or lead to death.
"They can bite, but they are not looking to bite," Wilgers said. "They save their venom for things that they want to eat, or to use if they are extremely agitated or trying to defend themselves."
Wilgers said tarantulas actually make very good pets as they are calm and mellow and seem to like humans. He has five as pets at the current time, all named after famous scientists like Albert Einstein, Rachel Carson and Charles Darwin. He was not sure if they had different personalities, but some did exhibit different habits, like burrowing or hiding tendencies.
"Pretty much they just like to be left on their own," Wilgers said. "But there are times I like to get them out and hold them."
He said the best way to tell them apart was based on their exoskeletons.
"Tarantulas have to shed off their outer fibers every two months or so because their exoskeleton does not grow with them and it gets too tight," he said. "These exoskeletons often look like the real spider, because they just crawl right out from under them. I use those for presentations a lot."
Hairy skeletons on the lawn might be an indication that a tarantula lives nearby, but don't worry, they are good to have around, and the sight of one is worse than it's bite.